The Misery of Not Painting like others

Peter Campbell

  • The Unknown Matisse: Man of the North, 1869-1908 by Hilary Spurling
    Penguin, 480 pp, £12.99, April 2000, ISBN 0 14 017604 7
  • Matisse: Father and Son by John Russell
    Abrams, 416 pp, £25.00, May 1999, ISBN 0 8109 4378 6
  • Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse by John O’Brien
    Chicago, 284 pp, £31.50, April 1999, ISBN 0 226 61626 6
  • Matisse and Picasso by Yve-Alain Bois
    Flammarion, 272 pp, £35.00, February 1999, ISBN 2 08 013548 1

Because Matisse’s work (his late work, anyway) seldom involves any alienating display of skill or aggressive degree of difficulty, he persuades us that our ordinary visual pleasures could, were they to be extraordinarily intensified, be the same as his. He is thus vulnerable to the admirer’s revenge: to an intrusive assumption of intimacy on our part. His life was not a public one but even the simplest suppositions about it – that it must have been very pleasant to sit painting the girls, the fruit, the flowers and the bay beyond the balcony, for example, or to cut out shapes in coloured paper and then arrange them – are often wrong.

The works by Matisse which now appear on café walls and greetings cards come, on the whole, from the second half of his long life. The earlier Fauve portraits or simplified, geometrical pictures like The Moroccans or Bathers by a River are much harder on the eye. Critics have used the young Matisse – the hard man, the artistic radical – to berate the old, but if (like me) you grew up while he was still alive, it’s with the old Matisses that you almost inevitably start when you try to make sense of the life and the work. And because we felt we knew him, the images he sanctioned showing him at work were like personal letters. A set of photographs which he invited Brassaï to take in 1939 show him in a well-lit studio wearing what looks like a doctor’s white coat, sitting close to Wilma Javor, the young woman he is drawing.

Clothed old men drawing naked young women are one of Picasso’s subjects, even though Picasso didn’t spend much time working that way; Matisse did. You could guess this – and also deduce that he sat close to the model – from those drawings which include his own reflection in a mirror, or a corner of his sketch-book at the bottom of the sheet. Even (indeed, particularly) when they are done in only a few lines, these drawings tell us a great deal about the way flesh folds and creases in response to a pose – and to keep hold of this kind of information is difficult unless you’re looking as you draw. Combine what you see in the photographs of Matisse drawing with what you see in the kinds of drawing he was doing while they were being taken, and you come to understand the remarks he made thirty years earlier which suggested that although what he painted was radically transformed, his work was, nonetheless, a condensation of specific sensations. He didn’t want to be a decorator. Dufy made things pretty on purpose, but for Matisse prettiness came later on and was usually, even then, incidental to a quite severe interrogation of physical appearance.

The clinical connotations of the white coat and the large, well-lit room in the Brassaï photographs are not inappropriate: Matisse’s drawings of women are analyses, rather than expressions, of appetite. Picasso’s pictures showing artist and model read as memories or prefigurations of sex, whence their extraordinary energy. Matisse’s pursuit of the sources of visual pleasure seems, despite the simple subject-matter, to be monitored (if not exactly driven) by thoughts about shapes and colours, as well as feelings for them. Later photographs, showing him at work on the decorations for the chapel at Vence – cutting coloured paper and making drawings with a piece of charcoal tied to a long stick – make the same case. His look of calm concentration suggests that patterns whose strong impact on us is immediate were the result not of sudden inspiration, but of adjustment and contrivance.

As evidence of the difficulty of art, this may seem oblique, yet the general effect of the photographs of the old Matisse at work and of the old Picasso at play (the ageing satyr with his young children; still drawing, painting, making sculpture and decorating pots) is to suggest that, for them, things had become easy, that modern art had been generously and happily fulfilled, not just in its aims, but in the lives of those who made it. Photographs of successful painters of the 19th century record rooms of princely, if bohemian, lavishness. Those of Matisse and Picasso imply that their art was a kind of magic growing out of everyday life, experienced in rooms and among objects which (their own pictures on the walls apart) are not so different from those that any one of us might aspire to own.

All this easily distracted us from Matisse’s hard beginnings, and in particular from the moment when he found himself out on his own, only tenuously linked to the tradition which had nurtured him. Now that we have the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s biography, however, it is much easier to look back beyond the white-bearded maker of images of luxuriousness to the wild-man-of-art shown in the self-portrait of 1906 and to be reminded that – as one soon learns from the letters he wrote to his son Pierre in the 1930s and 1940s (quoted in John Russell’s Matisse: Father and Son) – even the old Matisse was far from the calm, masterful presence one might have imagined, anxious as he was as a father and misunderstood, so he thought, as a husband. For the evidence of his art and his life to add up, we need to reconcile the wild man of the Fauve paintings, the hedonist of the later Nice pictures, the bourgeois family man and the experimentalist who could overpaint what was merely agreeable in his search for something which penetrated appearances more deeply.

Spurling writes as a biographer, not as an art historian, but the contrasts that she draws – between the mutilated landscape of the industrial towns Matisse grew up in and the extravagant refinement of the fabrics which came from their mills; between the meanness of the places where he lived and the voluptuousness of the scraps of fabric he, even then, collected; between his toughness in sticking to the direction his instinct as a painter took him in and his embrace of subject-matter which flatters bourgeois notions of what is agreeable; and above all between the anxious insomniac who agonised over what he was doing and the calm authority of many of his paintings – do more to explain how it is that his work can seem both serious and decorative, both intense and relaxed, than any analysis which begins and ends with the pictures themselves. Biography is the ideal means by which to explore the relationship between Matisse and the tradition of French painting as he found it.

He was born in 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, in north-eastern France. His father ran a successful hardware and seed merchant’s business; his mother, who came from a family of furriers, tanners and glove-makers, had once worked in a hat-shop. Spurling describes very well the hardworking northern culture in which Henri grew up and suggests that his own combination of toughness and anxiety ran in the family and that his lifelong love of the local product – textiles – was cultural as much as personal.

By 1891, when Matisse – having abandoned the law (a profession that seems to have acted as a decompression chamber for aspiring artists with sceptical fathers) – briefly entered Bouguereau’s classes at the Académie Julian, Van Gogh was already dead and Gauguin heading off to Tahiti. The last of the eight Impressionist exhibitions had taken place five years before. And what was Matisse painting? Brown still lifes. He said that the first time he really saw Impressionist paintings was when the Caille-botte legacy was exhibited in 1897. Remarking on the similarity between Matisse’s description in old age of his early struggles and those of other painters, ‘major and minor, fashionable or the reverse, accustomed by the Beaux-Arts system to a common framework of conformity and revolt, acceptance and rejection, liberation and despotism’, Spurling suggests that the ‘rigid academic tyranny fostered, in any individual strong enough to withstand it, a correspondingly powerful urge towards freedom and individuality,’ but it also ‘laid down ways of thinking and talking about their role shared by the entire spectrum of French artists in the 19th century, from the grand pontiff of the academic establishment to a long line of innovators who were initially reviled and eventually consecrated by the system, like Corot, Delacroix, Cézanne and Matisse himself.’

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